Wednesday February 14, 2018

Retired at 50: How five-time Olympian David Ford pushed the limits in sport

Canada's David Ford competes in the final of the men's K1 canoe slalom at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing.

Canada's David Ford competes in the final of the men's K1 canoe slalom at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing. (The Associated Press)

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In this year's Winter Olympics, first-class athletes are breaking world records to great awe and wonder of regular humans. 

But a recent study has provoked concern that we've reached the boundaries of what the human body can do in sport.

Published in the journal Frontiers of Physiology, the study suggests performance started levelling off in the 1980s.

Have our bodies peaked? Are we coming to the end of firsts in international sport?

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Canada's Ted-Jan Bloemen broke a decade-old world record in men's 5,000 at the speed skating World Cup in December, 2017. (Mike Ridewood/The Canadian Press)

Five-time Olympian David Ford doesn't think so, and he's got the record to back him up. 

In nearly three decades as one of Canada's top whitewater kayakers, Ford has had a long career defying assumptions about age and high performance.

With over a dozen World Cup medals, he retired in the fall of 2017 as a 50-year-old still able to make the World Cup national team.

"Technology changes, the way we train changes, sports are changing," Ford told The Current's guest host Laura Lynch. "Because of all that, we're going to see athletes always moving it forward just a little bit."

Ford shared how he managed to defy the odds and push the boundaries in his sport. 

Below are seven of his techniques for changing the game:

1. Reassess, be flexible  

"One of the things that happens with athletes, especially high performers, is you do something well and you get stuck in a rut. You think, 'well, if that got me what I wanted, then I need to just keep doing more of that.'"

"I stayed away from that with a reassessment every year. I was willing to be open to what was happening in the world of high performance in sports-science … and I was able to adopt more modern training techniques as I moved through. That saved me from falling into that rut, which would have really limited my ability to get better every year."

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Evgenia Medvedeva, an Olympic athlete from Russia, set a new world-record score of 81.06 in the women's figure skating short program, Feb. 11, at the 2018 Winter Games. (Damir Sagolj/Reuters)

2. Seasonal planning

"You start your year and look at where you need to perform, and you periodize your year. You say 'okay, I should be training here in these energy systems, so that in June, July or whenever your main competitions are — you're going to be at your best."

3. Fast and furious workouts

"What we're doing now is a lot fewer workouts, a lot shorter, and a lot more intensity."

"You're spending a lot more time in what we call 'the pain cave.'"

4. Equally furious rest

"We've learned that rest is really important so your body can recover and I think that's what gave me some longevity. I was able to learn that giving my body the opportunity to have a break let it build itself back up so I was stronger — and it also let me compete longer."

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Edmonton's David Ford is the only Canadian to medal at a slalom canoe/kayak World Championships, taking an almost unthinkable gold in 1999, and silver four years later. (Kevin Frayer/CP)

5. Address mental barriers

"When I was 15 or 16 years old I was told I'd never be a Canadian champion. There were just too many obstacles ... and I just remembered that planting a seed in the back of my brain that just wouldn't go away."

"As we learn to remove those mental barriers and take away those things that kind of make us lazy, or hold us back, that's when things sort of explode and growth really happens."

6. Sport psychology

"I use sports psychology and I think that has become a huge part of a lot of athletes preparation process — making sure that they understand the optimum mental performance state."

"Being able to learn your own mental psyche, how to compartmentalize, and how to be mentally pliable so that when things come up you're able to overcome them very quickly rather than let them hold you back."

"At the Olympics in 2004, I had kind of a rocky Olympic history, and in the qualifying event I had a very bad first run and you need two runs that are added together to move on."

"I was lucky to have my sports psychologist and my coach there, and we sat under the bridge on the course and had a long discussion about what I wanted my legacy to look like, how I wanted to be defined. Not having the ability to work with somebody like that and put things in perspective — I probably would have crumbled. It gave me the opportunity to kind of step up and step out of myself. I was way behind the eight ball but I was able to fight back to fourth place — which was my best Olympic performance."

7. Remember it's a game: The high performance puzzle

"Every year I finished, whether I was World Champion or I had struggled, [I'd] look at that 'puzzle of high performance' and try and figure out, 'do I have all the pieces?' And if I have the pieces, 'am I putting it together the right way?' That's really what gave me inspiration. I never really thought about my age so much through that whole process, surprisingly. It was more that reassessment every year, and whether I still had the passion for it."
 

Listen to the full conversation at the top of this page that includes Tier 1 Canada Research Chair in skeletal muscle health, Stuart Phillips and author, physicist and distance runner, Alex Hutchinson.

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This segment was produced by The Current's Idella Sturino, Willow Smith and Rosa Kim.